Mom knows best — at least when it comes to sleep deprivation. It turns out that lack of sleep may indeed make us more susceptible to colds and flu. This includes the H1N1 virus.
“It’s the story of an old woman who gets sick if you don’t sleep well, and there’s some experimental data to suggest that’s true,” said Diwakar Balachandran, MD, University of Texas at Houston Director of the Sleep Center at MD Anderson Cancer Center.
About 50 million to 70 million American adults suffer from sleep disturbances or the inability to stay awake and alert, according to the CDC. While it’s not always easy to do, getting enough sleep can help prepare our immune system for an attack.
A checklist of sleep deprivation and mental and physical health problems, including those stemming from a compromised immune system. Our immune system is designed to protect us from colds, flu, and other illnesses, but when it’s not functioning properly, it can’t function. Consequences could include more sick days.
However, the relationship between sleep deprivation and our immune system isn’t as simple as mom suggested. The immune system is quite complex. It is made up of several types of cells and proteins that are responsible for keeping foreign invaders like colds or flu at bay.
“Many studies have shown that if we don’t get enough sleep, our T cells decline,” Barachandran said. “And inflammatory cytokines are elevated. …which may lead to a greater risk of developing a cold or flu.”
In simple terms, lack of sleep suppresses immune system function. Or, as Balachandran puts it, “The more nights you stay up, the more likely you are to reduce your body’s ability to respond to a cold or bacterial infection.”
Lack of sleep is not only Affects whether we get a cold or the flu. It also affects the way we fight disease.
For example, our bodies fight off infections caused by fever. “One of the things that happens when we sleep is we can get a better response to fever,” Balachandran said. “That’s why fevers tend to rise at night. But if we don’t sleep, our fever response isn’t ready, so we may not be doing the best we can to wage war on infection.”
Studies show that sleep-deprived people are also less protected by the flu vaccine than sleep-deprived people, Balachandran said.
John Park, MD, a pulmonologist specializing in sleep medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, agrees. “We know that when we don’t get enough sleep, our immune response is suppressed, and if we don’t get enough sleep, we make fewer antibodies to certain vaccines,” Park said. “Our bodies take longer to respond to immunizations, so if we’re exposed to the flu virus, we may be more likely to get sick than if we were well-rested after getting vaccinated.”
< div >Lack of Sleep: A Matter of Life and Death
Lack of sleep can also affect our ability to combat serious health conditions. According to Balachandran, studies have shown that people who don’t get enough sleep have a higher risk of dying from heart disease. “The less sleep you get, the higher your C-reactive protein (CRP) levels,” he says. CRP is a marker of inflammation, and inflammation may play a role in heart disease.
People who don’t get enough sleep are actually more likely to die from a variety of causes than people who are well-rested. “Studies show that people who sleep about seven hours a night have the highest survival rates, and if we sleep less than six hours a night, our mortality rate appears to increase,” Balachandran said.